Extra-hot Habanero sauce and Christmas reflections

I was sitting in a little Mexican restaurant a few hours ago, watching one of my best friends eat his bodyweight in extra-hot Habanero sauce. It was a gorgeous late afternoon in Brisbane: hot, without being scorching, and bright sun without the humidity turning the air to treacle. Apart from the fact I managed to drop enormous amounts of guacamole on myself , it was a peaceful, fairly non-eventful afternoon.

This morning though was less peaceful. I became trapped in a stream of last-minute Christmas shoppers. It was like being caught in one of those enormous shoals of fish they show on National Geographic – garish neon Santas the more man-made Barracudas. It was a struggle not to be consumed and forget that I’ve already bought grown-up colouring books and Oxfam goats for almost everyone I know (surprise!) so I wasn’t actually part of that stress. Now that I live in the country, I miss the bustle of the city but the focus of these people was something else altogether. For the most part, they were there unwillingly, begrudgingly, because presents needed to be bought for people they may have even loved but who then, just for that moment, became simply a name on a lost with ‘what the hell do I get them?’

As my friend stretched himself out along the couch of the restaurant (extra-hot Habanero sauce is apparently exhausting), I kept on thinking about how stressful Christmas is for so many people. A deeply old chestnut in so many ways but one that also seems to be entirely normalised. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the perfect present could make things better. The narrative of everything being fixable with something, particularly if that something is branded and saleable, is pervasive. And that narrative is great if you have something fixable by the branded and the saleable – but so many things don’t fall into that neat little box.

With the research I’ve done so far, so many of the stories I’ve heard have fallen so far outside that box, the box was never considered realistic in the first place. When people have told stories of their suicidality, or caring for someone else, these issues haven’t necessarily been fixable in any sort of linear or simple way. It’s taken enormous collaboration with myriad people (professional or otherwise), as many steps backward as forward. Sometimes issues aren’t fixable at all and people simply live with them as best they can. And I will never tell their stories as beautifully as I’ve heard them…

Sitting there this afternoon, peaceful and overfed, away from the shopping crush, it’s these people I think about, and to whom, in the most deeply hippy way, I send so much positive energy. Because, in their continuing on, they highlight what is most important and what still needs to be done in my field. How will our work – how will my work – help them next year? I’ve aways tried to base my work on whether I’d be OK with my Ma being a participant and that still continues to feel important. This afternoon, that was the best Christmas wish I could think of – how can we make people’s lives more worth living?

Merry Christmas everyone. Be kind to yourselves and travel well.

Inspiration from inspiring people

Just as it will always be slightly frightening to write (and then have published) something very confessional and raw, it is always incredible to see how people respond to it. I have been lucky enough to have a piece published by The Thesis Whisperer this week:


More than that, I have been lucky enough that people have read it and are talking about it. I had no idea so many people would read the piece; it feels a little overwhelming, a little like I’ve walked into the exam room naked. On the other hand though, to see how people have responded and what they’ve been talking about has been incredible. The support and acknowledgement of how many of us are in the same boat. How many of us are tired to our bones but still finding something to spark our passion.

And how we need to find a way to not let that go – to preserve it best we can.

Things may not be any less uncertain than they were when I wrote the piece but having other people share their stories as well has inspired me to keep trying. That maybe I shouldn’t give up just yet and move to a windswept cottage on a remote Scottish coast, small cat in tow, to bake and write. As good a dream as that is, maybe not just yet.

What it’s made me realise, more than ever, is how much research is fuelled by passion – that our curiosity is what makes us. These issues wouldn’t hurt us so much – we wouldn’t feel them so viscerally – if we didn’t care about the things we are researching. And the myriad things that we’re all doing. I am seriously still trying to wrap my head around the experiment Physics Steve shows in his blog (http://www.physicssteve.co.uk/) – images of terrible sci-fi movies… Qual, quant, or a mixture of both – all of these are shaping in the world, even in the smallest ways. And it’s so exciting to see how passionate people are about so many different things.

To me, as I work my way through feelings of burn out, seeing all of this has been inspiring. It may not change how difficult things are – and it doesn’t mean that things are better now like a vacuous happily-ever-after — but having these conversations and supporting each other – and knowing that we are supported too – makes it easier to come back the tomorrow, and then the next day, and the day after that. Even as piles of marking, half-written articles, and a very scary whiteboard await…

As an aside, and I’m wondering now just how much the things we read when we’re younger impact on us. If I’d read less Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, would I have been less likely to gravitate to a confessional style of writing? Was I always going to be a qualitative researcher?I always tell my students or, you know, anyone I meet, that no first draft is perfect and my first drafts are always more lyrical in nature. I know this process well enough now that no one else sees these first drafts – they’re mine to then work on to make into structure and format more in line with journal and funder guidelines.One day, I’m going to submit a grant written entirely in prose. I may even try to make it rhyme.

After all that, what say you, my friends? 

Fear, rescue remedy, and speaking in front of people

Given the choice, I will always, without question, hand-on-heart, choose to write. I can write anywhere – in my office, backyard, coffee shop, beach… Dating a musician in the early stages of my PhD, I wrote great chunks of literature review in all sorts of pubs while he set up. Writing is my great love, the thing that makes my heart beat, even when it’s the thing making me tear my hair out trying to figure out the right words.

But tonight, I potentially have to talk in front of people.

This is less a love. It makes my heart beat but in a sweaty, shaking, anxious way. I overdose on Rescue Remedy, do breathing techniques, picture small golden balls of light transporting calm throughout my body, all the things you’re meant to do to ease the anxiety. I always wear something with pockets – to hold the Rescue Remedy I’m overdosing on. I’ve even got to the point where I write out my talk exactly as I’d say it in detailed note form so it’s there, just in case, a necessary security blanket.

However, until I’m up at the front actually speaking, there are two competing thoughts circling around in my mind: ‘Breathe, its all going to be OK’ and ‘Run away, doing this is horrible, just leave now’. So far, I’ve managed to not run out the door with smoke coming from my heels Looney-Tunes-style, but there have been a few close calls.

Maybe it’s a reflection of my nerves but I have this cartoon image of myself, all fed from the Looney Tunes of my childhood. The bright red face of Elmer Fudd. The heart beating out of my chest like Bugs Bunny or Pepe Le Pew. Neuroticism as encapsulated by Daffy Duck. The fast-paced, high-pitched hysteria of all of them. If Road Runner beep-beeped past me, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Apparently, this neuroticism is not always so noticeable to anyone else but it’s maybe why the pictures from Alvy Carragher’s blog ‘With All the Finesse of a Badger’ (http://alvycarragher.blogspot.com.au/) make me laugh so much. It’s the eyes of her characters when her stories reach complete bonkers, in the best possible way – they are calmingly deranged.

While the whole ‘do one thing every day that scares you every day’ mantra is a beautiful idea, the flip side is equally nice as well. After the scary thing, do one thing that is calming to the tips of your toes, because that is just as important. So I’ll be hanging out with my zen master Laks tonight.

So what’s your scary thing?

After Jill Meagher and Tugce Albayrak

I’ve cried this week reading commentary on the deaths of two women: Jill Meagher and Tugce Albayrak. These three pieces, written by three very different people, are incredible:


http://whiteribbonblog.com/2014/04/17/the-danger-of-the-monster-myth/ (this is older than the other pieces – found as I was trying to re-find the piece above)


The grief felt over the deaths of these women has been turned into beautiful words that challenge us not only to keep their memory alive but to honour their memory too in speaking up and speaking out about the violence that took these women’s lives – and takes the lives of many more. The violence (in whatever its form) that shapes how women – how I – go about the day and make decisions. And it’s not that this influence is necessarily blatant and overt at all times but more a lingering tug in the back of my mind:

Is it better to get a taxi home from the pub rather than walk the (barely) ten minutes home? Is it better that, if I walk home, I then text everyone to say I’m home safe?

Is it better to go running with someone? Or if I go by myself, and I go running in the morning, is it better to wait until it’s fully light? And if I go by myself, is it better if I wear something other than my little running shorts which are cool in the eleventy-million degree summer weather but which are little?

It’s far too easy for these questions to devolve into a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of unanswerable rhetoric (and these are such a tiny sample of what the questions could be) – ‘better’ is so ridiculously subjective. Because at the end of the day, these lingering tugs all revolve around one ultimate question: which decision will keep me safe? Which decision will be impregnable against any harm? Because if something was to happen (touch wood), which decision would mean that I wasn’t blamed and my attacker would actually be punished for his crime? Which decision wouldn’t lead to questions about what I was wearing, and who I was talking to, and how I got home, and why I went by myself?

These questions are exhausting. Entirely exhausting.

Not least because men do not seem to ask them as often as women – and, if they do, then that’s a conversation we need to have as well.

Not least because the idea that I can’t go for a run or a walk by myself to collect my thoughts and de-stress without being accompanied by a bodyguard-like male protector is claustrophobic.

Not least because if I’m out running with my 6’5” tiny brother, no one yells at me from cars, or the footpath, about exactly which sexual acts they’d like to do to me.

Not least because the fact that I am less likely to  be yelled it if a man is out with me feeds into a masculine stereotype (that all men are obviously both capable of being, and want to be, a woman’s bodyguard-like protector) that we already know is hurting men.

No one wins this game full of stereotypes.

And so I find myself going for runs by myself wearing what I like when I like because none of those acts are illegal. Walking home from the pub, even when I’m tired and my feet hurt, because that is not illegal – and it’s not like taxis are always safe either. Doing all these things that are ‘unsafe’ because otherwise I’m afraid I would never leave the house.

And this is also in full acknowledgement that the issues I face melt away in comparison to those faced by other women in Australia, and across the world.

Last year, Bianca Hall wrote a brilliant piece (http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/stop-telling-women-to-be-afraid-20130306-2fjy5.html) which highlighted the fact that the language so often used with these crimes makes women have to the vanguards of their safety – not that the people who commit these crimes need to be punished appropriately and consistently. Not all men are violent, and will never be violent, that’s a given. Yet I wonder whether this language of what women should do to stay safe really doesn’t actually hurt men as well – if women have to proactively keep themselves safe then the implication becomes that men simply can’t control violent urges, which then implies that all men have violent urges that need to be controlled. And we know this not to be the case. The circularity of this argument is exhausting and, again, helps no one at all.

Bianca writes: “We all know that pang of panic that can clutch the chest in an instant when an unseen man steps out from a sidestreet and falls into step behind us (Is he walking too close? What’s he doing? Is it me he’s after?), and the rush of relief when it becomes obvious the poor bloke was just trying to walk in the same direction as a woman and is probably mortified at the thought he’s frightened her”. I have a feeling that the men who know me reading this will tell me I shouldn’t worry about this so much – that I’m sensible, regardless of my love for early morning exercise, and that I’ll be fine. And I know this.

Except I remember where I was when Jill Meagher went missing and was found. I remember because I was up north for work – going in between the hotel and different work sites, going for early morning walks. After Jill was found, the guys I was working with wouldn’t let me travel to and from my hotel to different places by myself – just in case. And that’s the kicker, it’s always just in case.

In reading all of this lately, and writing about similar stuff for work, the findings from a Swedish ‘social experiment’ really got me thinking. Run by a group known for prank videos, and other social experiments, which they post on YouTube, this video shows a man verbally and physically abusing a woman in a lift. It’s all pretence as the men and women are actors but none of the people know this as they enter the left and the video is pretty full-on in its depiction (you can see it here but I want to provide a trigger warning here just in case: http://mashable.com/2014/11/15/abuse-elevator-experiment/). The creators say that only one woman said anything to the couple, out of 53 people who entered the lift.

What does this say about society? Does this say that people in general don’t care about violence against women?

The researcher in me knows we can’t really take any findings from this as we don’t know how the experiment was conducted. The researcher in me also worries whether the people who were filmed were offered debriefing opportunities afterwards, given what they’d seen.

As a woman though, I’m honestly not sure if I would have said something either. Maybe I would be brave and say something. Yet, even here, I’m not entirely sure ‘brave’ is the right word but I’m equally unsure of what would be the better replacement.

In that cramped space – where the man was that much bigger than the woman (and potentially me as well) and already aggressive – I’m not sure that I would have felt safe enough to speak out, rather than just retreating into myself. I tell myself that, if I were in that situation, I might not speak out there but I would call the police the second I was out of the lift.

And that, of course, is not enough.

This not only frustrates me in terms of my perceived lack but it makes me angry as to why I would be afraid to speak out. I would be afraid of the man because he could hurt me too, or worse. In the midst of it all, maybe I wouldn’t think about the consequences and that I would speak out, but sitting here writing, the consequences become all too stark, and all too frightening.

It is these stories of Jill and Tugce – women just out for the night, doing nothing out of the ordinary – that feed that fear, that make you take care and think twice as a woman. (This is not to say that there aren’t men who feel this same of trepidation in terms of violence but this isn’t an experience I can speak to). Yet, it is these stories that remind us how much we still need to talk about issues of violence and fear without getting stuck on semantics. I feel that I’m simply repeating things already said, again and again, but the fact that we’re still having this conversation means nothing has changed in any sort of tangible sense. These conversations need to be focused on change: changing a blaming culture that puts an emphasis on women protecting themselves; changing the way in which we raise boys and girls and teach them about respect and violence and compassion; and, changing our assumptions that just because ‘this is just the way things are’ and ‘this is what I’ve always thought’ doesn’t mean they’re right and don’t need changing.

So… What do you think?